Adaptations of H.G. Wells’ ‘War of The Worlds’

Before I move on to the main point of this article I must state how utterly astounding this novel is.

For start it was originally published during the reign of Queen Victoria as a serial in Pearson’s Magazine in 1897. Magazines were extremely popular at the time and many novels were originally published as serials before becoming hardback novels. In the case of ‘War of The Worlds’, the book form was published in 1898.

If a marker of the start of the modern world was the production line that produced the Ford Model T (the worlds first ‘affordable’ car), then the modern world was at least another ten years away – and yet here is a story about interplanetary travel!

Tripod Sculpture – Woking, England

Apart from the era it was written in, many of the ideas and concepts expressed directly or indirectly in the story touch on subjects that are still discussed or written about in the twenty-first century (with varying levels of seriousness). It certainly laid the bedrock for science fiction throughout the twentieth century and all of this began with an alien cylinder landing on Horsell Common, just outside Woking – 32 mile south of London.

War of the Worlds introduced the idea of an alien invasion (alien in terms of interplanetary rather than merely foreign). It also established the concept that Martians were aggressive, and that Mars was an ancient and highly advanced civilisation, but probably in decay. It can be read as a comment on Victorian society, imperialism and exploitation, advanced warfare and the mechanisation of war. There is also the influence of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and the whole science-verses-religion debate (‘On The Origin of Species‘ was only published in 1859).

Orson Welles

There have been a number of significant adaptations for radio and film over the years and I will briefly touch on the most significant versions.

In terms of radio, the version that is most remembered is the 1938 adaptation directed and performed by Orson Welles, and which essentially made his name. The production, which went out on Halloween of that year, was startlingly innovative – it was broadcast in the form of a News Flash which appeared to interrupt another radio programme, and announced the invasion as though it was happening in real time at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Apparently the story that thousands fled their homes in a blind panic, believing it was a real news report, was largely exaggerated by the newspapers.

In 1953 George Pal produced a big budget film version for Paramount Studios, which also placed the action in America. George Pall already had hit films with ‘Destination Moon‘ and ‘When Worlds Collide‘, so was particularly associated with Science Fiction, and would later film the classic version of H.G. Wells’ ‘The Time Machine‘ with Rod Taylor, Alan Young and Yvette Mimieux.

Yet another version to erroneously place the action on American soil, was the 2005 Steven Spielberg film starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning and Tim Robbins. Obviously, Spielberg’s filmography needs no explanation!

There have been other adaptations, but these have by far been the most significant versions to date.

Although the British release date has yet to be announced (it has already aired in a few other countries), there is a new three part BBC television series of War of The Worlds which is due to be broadcast in the UK sometime before Christmas. Surprisingly, it is the first time that the novel has been adapted by a British broadcaster. I am hoping that this new version will be good enough to be considered as one of the classics and there are a couple of reasons for this.

For a start it will be the first screen version to be based close to the era of the original novel – although not set in Victorian times, it is based in the Edwardian era, so not far off. Also, it will be set geographically where the the novel was set, namely London and Surrey – not America for a change! On the whole, this appears to be the most faithful adaptation so far – I just hope it’s going to be good enough – apparently it was originally due to be broadcast last year but was delayed due to technical problems with the special effects in post production (well, I’m hoping that was the only reason!)

What I will be interested in seeing is it’s portrayal of the Curate (if he appears at all) in the BBC adaptation. In the original novel, he is more than a little unhinged by what’s going on – he believes that the Martians have been sent by God to punish us for our sins. This could be seen as a comment about the fragility of religious dogma in the face of indisputable circumstances, or, in other words, in the face of rational and scientific observation (in contrast to the curate, the narrator of the novel is portrayed as the voice of reason). When the curate looses it completely the narrator effectively kills him with a shovel for fear of being discovered by the Martians.

Confronting the Martians with religion.

It is interesting to note that in the 1953 film version of the novel the religious representative, a Pastor, believes that the Martians must be essentially good beings because they too were made by God and that they will see the righteousness of God’s word. This belief is maintained even after having seen them kill other humans. He walks towards them reading from the Bible and swiftly gets blasted out of existence. Is this the way the world saw religion in the middle of the twentieth century, essentially powerless in the face of modernity and mechanisation, or was the Pastor a martyr standing up for religious belief no matter what. Interestingly, the film also has a scene in a church at the end when the Martians are dying, which suggests mankind was saved by the work of God.

In the 2005 Spielberg version the Curate does not make an appearance, but aspects of him are amalgamated with the artilleryman from the novel, in the form of Tim Robbins’ character – a crazed individual who wants to hunker down with the hope of planning a Guerrilla attack at some point in the future. He is killed with a shovel (like the Curate in the book) by Tom Cruise’s character through fear of discovery (apparently in this version the invaders were not from Mars, but some distant unnamed planet, largely because the idea of intelligent life on Mars has unfortunately been discredited). So, where is religion in this version (and for that matter, in the twenty-first century?) and will it feature at all in the new BBC adaptation?

The interesting point about War of The Worlds and it’s relation to religion is that it suggests that Science and Technology cannot save man, anymore than the belief in a Deity can. It is Nature which defeats the invading force – or the human race is saved, as Wells puts it in the opening paragraph, of the novel, by “the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water”.

Ultimately Wells may have been suggesting that it is not a good idea to sell your soul to any one belief system, but to be more widely aware of the world and it’s multitude of ideas and perspectives, because no single theory has all the answers…

Talking to Machines

I should really have titled this article ‘Talking to People Through Machines’, but that’s a bit long-winded and not quite as eye-catching as simply ‘Talking to Machines’.

The main purpose for this posting was to add a picture I came across on Treehugger showing a cartoon of two people making video-calls.  It was published in a German magazine of the 1930’s.  As the article (by Lloyd Alter) on Treehugger highlights, not only is this fascinating for predicting personal video phones (or as we know them now Smartphones with Skype or Facetime apps), but also the attitude of the people – casually ignoring the person in front of them in preference to the machine.

Two people ignoring each otherOf course video phones have popped up in science fiction almost since the beginning of science fiction. Even shortly after the invention of the telephone people were already speculating on the possibility of seeing the person you were speaking to. There are many examples of videophones that come to mind from cinema, but rarely are they ever handheld devices. Some of the most memorable include the one built by humans as a test set by super-brainy aliens in ‘This Island Earth‘ and the space-station to earth call in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘.  There was also one in ‘Metropolis‘ in 1927 and I’m sure similar ones were also used in the 30’s science fiction serials like ‘Flash Gordon‘ and ‘The Phantom Empire‘.

This Island Earth (1955)

2001 - A Space Odyssey (1968)

Metropolis (1927)

There are good overviews of the history and development (usually at huge expense with little advancement) of real working examples of the videophone idea on the Wikipedia entry (under Videophone, of course!).  There is also quite an interesting article here (which is one of many articles on Retrofuturistic ideas which might be worth further investigation).

AT&T spent over US$500 million up to the end of the 60’s on the development of their own Picturephone, but a paragraph from the Picturephone article (a part of the Tales of Future Past on the fascinating davidszondy site) probably explains why the whole idea didn’t really take off until the arrival of computers, smartphones and apps:-

Part of the reason was the cost.  Picturephone was not cheap: $125 per month plus $21 per minute.  Also, there was the problem of how you use a Picturephone when you’re one of the very few people who have one.  Without a compelling reason to think that people were going to sign up for picturephones real quick you’re faced with the reality that there’s a whole lot of nobody to talk to out there. 

AT&T Picturephone

What Weighs Five Tons and Lives In A Shed?

Flossie is the answer.  Or, more accurately, a 25 foot square ICT 1301 mainframe computer which dates from 1962.  This would have meant nothing to me a few days ago and I doubt few other people would ever have heard of it before either.  Apparently it is one of the Goliaths of computer history and now, after ten years worth of restoration, the only working example of it’s kind in the world.

I can quite understand that getting excited over an obscure piece of computer history can be a little difficult for some people – this is probably due to the relatively short timeline involved.  If we take Alan Turing’s work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War as a start of modern computing (one of many possible start points!), then a computer from 1962 is really quite an early example.  It is one of the first steps that would eventually lead to the small personal, multi-use machines that we now take for granted.

It’s original asking price was £250,000 (or £4.2 million in today’s money) and was originally used to print GCE pass slips for the London University, after that it processed club membership lists and also featured as a prop in Dr Who and The Man With The Golden Gun.  How it found it’s way to a farm shed in Kent is anybody’s guess!  With Daphnie Oram’s Oramics machine being re-discovered in a barn in Kent, the county seems to be a bit of a graveyard of computing history.

In terms of data storage and processing power Flossie at first glance seems a little pathetic in today’s terms but was at the time quite powerful.  It has 2kb of memory accessed at 1mhz, 27 reels of magnetic tape and 100,000 punch cards.  Essentially a digital watch has more processing power and all the data could easily be accommodated on a third of a compact disc.

It is quite stunning how the digital revolution miniaturized computing – the 4,000 logic boards and 16,000 transistors that allow Flossie to do it’s job can now be replaced by two 10mm square silicon chips.

Rod Thomas and Roger Holmes have spent the past decade bringing Flossie back to working order and believe that it is an important part of computing history, a history which if not maintained now will be impossible to recover in the future.  Being one of the earliest British-made working mainframe computers, they hope that this rare machine will be saved for posterity and displayed at the Science Museum in London (which already has a fascinating array of redundant machines).  To have this machine working and it’s programming understood adds to our knowledge of the exponential development in electronics and design which led to the now ubiquitous home computer.

The hope of rehousing this machine does have a sense of urgency about it – the farm where the computer is stored is being sold, so a new home is urgently required.  So, if you have a spare shed and are into computing history you might like to get in touch with Rod and Roger, I’m sure they’d be relieved to hear from you…